Open source intelligence: Why the media needs to handle it with care

The media routinely uses it in coverage of strategic and military affairs, but where’s the due diligence?

WrittenBy:Anand Sankar
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If you are a professional or even a serious enthusiast of strategic and military affairs, it has been jolly good times over the recent years, thanks to the growing community around open source intelligence, or OSINT, as it’s called.

OSINT is often shared by persons who are either monitoring public data like aircraft or ship transponders, road traffic data, data posted by the public on social media from a place where it's legal, or more often by those who have access to commercial satellite imagery. By definition, OSINT should be based on public data or legally purchased or shared data. It cannot be surreptitiously gathered data, like someone illegally photographing or tracking aircraft, ships and vehicles near military bases.

Propelled predominantly by Twitter and some public forums, OSINT has become par de course, and ignites conversation that quickly becomes lively due to participation by domain experts, military veterans, media, politicians and the general public.

OSINT has played a major role in the conversation around all major recent military events in India — the surgical strikes, the air raid on Balakot, and now the crisis on the Line of Actual Control with the People’s Republic of China. The Indian media (web, television and print), which has been historically starved of getting access to reports from the ground on strategic and military affairs, was quick to cotton on to this trend and now is eager to breathlessly grab any OSINT, hot from the oven.

In fact, among all consumers of OSINT, the Indian media has been hands-down the biggest beneficiary. And OSINT is free; you don’t need to step an inch out of your comfortable offices or studios. Many journalists and TV anchors now take pride in being able to communicate with some OSINT producers, who are completely anonymous.

Let's make one thing clear first: OSINT is not bad. It is a welcome trend, especially in countries like India, where a free press has not had access to report objectively on strategic and military affairs, and the citizenry has a right to know much more than what is officially disseminated. If you take the example of the current crisis on the LAC, not many Indians probably even know where the LAC lies, and even for keen enthusiasts, it has been an eye-opener because someone drew that line on an actual satellite photograph and shared it. It might not be accurate or authenticated by the government, but it does give the lay person some data to interpret the happenings.

But is the press a lay person? The question here is: Should it apply higher standards of vetting and judgement when further disseminating any OSINT? There are multiple issues of ethics and objectivity that are not being debated.

The first issue of concern is anonymous sources who claim to have access to commercial satellite imagery, who disseminate images that they have access to, often even with detailed interpretations. Commercial satellite imagery is almost always proprietary i.e. owned by the imaging company. Even if you see images that are used by Google Maps, they have a copyright note, and initiatives like Open Street Maps have to wait for companies to release images for use. The primary problem with all these sources is nowhere do they disclose how they got access to these images. Did they legally purchase it? Was it shared legally by the commercial satellite company with detailed terms of use?

A pattern that is familiar is that almost all the images have watermarks or annotations advertising the source, i.e. the imagery company. So, is this some kind of influencer marketing? If so, where is the disclosure? Why is the company marketing this way? Commercial satellite imagery, though prices have dropped recently, is still not cheap. Commercial satellite imagery, thanks to its rapid proliferation, is going to fill “gaps” in many nations’ own satellite coverage, so it needs marketing. And these contracts aren’t ever going to be scrutinised by citizenry anywhere.

With so many unknowns, shouldn’t the media insist on disclosures when they are given access to images like these and inform their viewers?

A further issue in disclosure is for OSINT sources who claim to be members of policy think-tanks or strategic and military affairs institutes. Again, here the press needs to dig into why these people are actively engaging in matters that are very far from their geographical shores. What’s in it for them?

The second issue is taking interpretations or annotations made by self-styled experts or anonymous sources at face value. Though some journalists have been treading here with caution, many aren’t. Some television journalists in India have even been accused of stealing OSINT for their primetime debates without crediting the source!

If an anonymous source draws a line on a satellite image to illustrate a border or some line, it should not be used unless authenticated by the government. Isn’t the law very clear? Only the government of India gets to draw the borders of India. Even pointing to Indian military positions or installations on the ground is a violation of the law. If you remember, Google Maps was forced to scrub all this data from its service. Newsrooms have to get serious about debating this before dissemination.

The final issue is how aware the Indian media is of the most important dimension of warfare today — information. This is very important in the current crisis with China. We are a democratic country with an independent press. It is not the case with our adversary. While we are free to report using OSINT, how sure are we that we are not being manipulated by our adversary, who plans his actions to be visible on OSINT? Our adversary can peddle whatever it wants to its captive citizenry and it probably harbours genuine hopes of influencing our decision making.

While national security decisions are not made based on media reportage, you cannot discount its role in forming the opinions of various stakeholders in the country, which will eventually have some impact on national decision making.

(Anand Sankar is a social entrepreneur, living in the mountains of Uttarakhand. He is used to peering at the ground from a vulture’s point of view.)


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